I know a girl whose grandfather died at the age of 94, after thirty years of an increasingly immobile and embittered retirement. Once a rich man, most of his money had gone towards paying for the costs of assisted living and ritual dying. It had become a running joke in the family - their angry old grandfather, sitting in a chair chainsmoking and surviving on an exclusive diet of boiled cabbage and black tea, like a diminishing asset, worth more dead than alive, but grimly clinging to his television existence for reasons of his own.

He had been instructed many times by doctors to quit smoking, but he refused, not unjustifiably as it seemed to make little difference to his lifespan, only its quality. One day, denied access to sources of flame by his family, he climbed on a stepladder in an attempt to light a cigarette from the kitchen lightbulb. He fell, and was found lying on the floor with a black eye, unable to get up. "Any decent man would have died," her father said, only half-joking.

They hypothesized that, being notorious for a miser, he was holding out for the £100 that the Irish government bestows upon centenarians when they reach that mythical birthday. He'd made it to the millennium, but he must have given up on his 100th anniversary. I would have given up long before. He had no friends left alive, and he wouldn't talk any more. He shared nothing of his own life, neither money nor wisdom nor memory, with those of his family who would have wanted him to; and they in turn learned to expect nothing from him, and were glad to disregard him, glad to let him live alone in his 'home', reluctantly and awkwardly visited, alive but not truly among the ranks of the living.

She told me that when he was dying, and their family was gathered around his hospital bed, she saw her father stroke his head gently, brushing back wisps of his hair, a gesture which he would never have made in other circumstances, and I think she had a sudden vision of life and time wasted, love not expressed, people held back from each others' arms for reasons that, too late, are realized to be stupid. She saw how her father loved his own father, despite everything, and could never have told him that while he lived, or touched his head so tenderly. And if he had, what would have been different?

We are taught in thousands of almost unnoticeable ways that to grow old is shameful, embarrassing, ugly, undesirable, something to be concealed and postponed and denied by every possible means, and that to die is the worst thing that can happen to you. And yet, almost the only things we can be certain of in our physical existence are these things. We will grow old, and we will die. To allow the unconscious forces of our society to marginalize and deny us as our bodies decay from the impossible ideal of youthful beauty is to become divided against ourselves, trapped in the attics of our own heads watching our precious portraits become ghoulish and repulsive.

You can't struggle against the natural flow of life for very long. I will grow old, and I want to be happy to see my face in a mirror, and not to be told that my usefulness is past. I want to die without being forced to believe that I must shiver in terror at the coming of a welcome and temporary darkness. I don't want to sit in a bitter armchair, grimly and stubbornly waiting for the end, flicking ash on the carpets of relatives who see me as a nuisance, a paradox, like a living corpse, a ghost refusing to pass on. I want to be alive until I die.

What is Aging?

The physical signs of aging occur when environmental and congenital influences begin to break down the body's carefully balanced systems. Skin loses elasticity, corneas harden, joints stiffen. We have a basic idea as to why these things happen, and some control over them. Exercise and proper diet can improve joint mobility and flexibility. Wrinkles and dry skin can be reduced by protecting yourself from the sun. Age-related eye problems are becoming increasingly treatable with laser surgery. We can replace many worn-out body parts, from hips to hearts (though the replacements are still largely inferior to healthy originals; they often need to be replaced several times throughout a person's lifetime).

If you look at the people around you, however,you are not likely to see a uniform aging pattern. Some fifty-year-olds look and act thirty, whereas others might be mistaken for eighty. Though there are a few exceptions (young health nuts who die of heart attacks, and centenarians whose main diet consisted of coffee and pork rinds), the general rule is that a healthy diet and level of physical activity make a person healthier. Lifespan, then, seems to be determined by both lifestyle and genetics. We can't do much about the genetics yet, but all of us can improve our eating and exercise habits and therefore our general health. This can only take a person so far, however. Our bodies maintain themselves via cell division; your systems, for the most part, are consistently renewing themselves, replacing broken-down old cells with new ones. It is theorized that our cells are pre-programmed only to divide a limited (but large) number of times. There are sequences at the ends of chromosomes called telomeres, that are thought to provide a regulating function during cell division. When the telomere becomes too short, the cell stops dividing. When the telomeres become short throughout various bodily systems, we see the results as "aging"; the body becomes weaker and less resilient, since it is not repairing itself as it should be.

Ack! you might be saying. "These things are killing us!" Au contraire my friend. This inhibition of cell division actually serves a very useful purpose: it protects us from cancer. Tumors can be immortal, but who wants to be a tumor? Not me. It seems that we are either doomed to die from age-related system and organ failure, or of cancer! Is there no hope for aspiring immortalists? Well, in the future it MIGHT be possible to stop the telomere activity from helping cancerous cells, while allowing it to help create fresh, healthy, normal cells. This will be delicate work, and we certainly cannot do it yet. Our best bet for today is to help protect our cells from damage: antioxidants such as vitamins C and E could help here, as well as making sure we avoid excessive sun exposure.

Beware The Fountain of Youth in a Pill

If you do a web search for "anti-aging research" you will come up with thousands of results. Many of these links lead to pages touting the benefits of some "miracle substance" that you ingest, while others advertise wrinkle cream and other cosmetics. Do a search for "life extension", and you will come up with everything from vitamins to cryonics. The problem is separating the BS from the legitimate science. I have found that pages that use lots of

LARGE FONT and EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!

and are full of misspellings tend to be less reliable. Life extension, it seems, is just as susceptible to exaggeration in advertising as penis enlargement. Yet as strange as this may sound, there is actually a lot of good, solid scientific information regarding cryonics. No human has ever yet been successfully frozen and then thawed into healthy consciousness, but we certainly have the technology today to freeze a person. The cryonics FAQ can be found at http://keithlynch.net/cryonet/00/18.html, and is a good read no matter if you think it is legitimate or lunacy. Another promising life extension possibility is caloric restriction, which has been shown to prolong the lives and improve the health of mice and monkeys.

Anything that is actually likely to prolong life or improve health and vitality into the later years is probably not going to be a "secret herbal formula" guaranteed to "make you feel 21!!!" It certainly won't be a magnetic bracelet or a special triangle-shaped charm you wear around your neck, despite what those ads in the tabloids would like you to believe. Cryonics is complicated and expensive. There is hope, but not hard proof yet, that calorie restriction will work in humans; even if it does, the restricted diet requires rigorous discipline, and many practitioners report that they feel hungry all the time. Many people would rather face an earlier death than not be able to eat all their favorite foods on a regular basis! The message here is that a long life or near-immortality is not likely to come easily or cheaply. Beware those selling "miracles".

Death Memes and Hope for the Future

Despite the romanticization of death by various belief systems and goth teenagers throughout the world, human beings as a whole fear the end of mortal existence and tirelessly seek ways to prolong and improve the quality of life. This piece is not directed at those individuals who are entirely comfortable with the concept of their own death, those who see the end of life as a natural aspect of existence. Rather, I am speaking to those like myself who, if given the choice, would eagerly accept bodily immortality. There is so much to learn here, and so much to experience, that today's life expectancy of 70-something years seems frighteningly inadequate. I live with a sense of urgency; not a day goes by that I don't stop and think, "I am young now but someday I will be old, so I'd better make the most of this!" Human culture and life is permeated with death; if you subscribe to the idea of memes, it should be apparent that the eventual death meme is quite pervasive. I wonder sometimes if death is, to some degree, a social issue: do we die simply because we expect to? If we stopped perceiving death as inevitable, how would that change the way we live?

I had something of a wake-up call about five years ago. I think it was prompted by the fact that I realized I was growing up, that I was no longer a child. As a child, it seemed that I'd be that way forever. And becoming an adult meant that one day I would certainly be elderly, and even further down the line I may die. Death was, up until that point, something that happened to peoples' great-grandparents. It finally hit me that all the great-grandparents in the world had once been children, babies even! I had known this objectively for years but I never really accepted it emotionally until I was about nineteen. And it scared me. I began reading web sites about cryonics and caloric restriction. I even tried a weird low-calorie diet for a while, but then realized I probably didn't really know what I was doing. I still sometimes feel like a science-fiction crackpot; I have real hope that somehow I will avoid the infirmities of old age and stave off death. Part of me wonders if attitude has anything to do with lifespan; happier people DO tend to live longer and suffer fewer illnesses. Conversely, stress and depression often manifest themselves as actual physical symptoms of illness. This indicates to me that perhaps humans CAN acheive a modicum of control over their physical well-being through maintaining a positive state of mind.

Part of this "positive state of mind", to me, includes NOT simply assuming I'm going to die someday. Perhaps this is my own form of religion; indeed, I have no proof that I will not die, and all of human history is against me! Yet many of the advancements humans have achieved just in the past two centuries were previously thought to be impossible (flight, space flight, artificial organs, and the mapping of the human genome, to name a few). We have cured diseases that used to mean certain death. The infirmity that comes with aging will perhaps someday be seen as simply another disease.


References:

http://www.disastercenter.com/cdc/
http://www.heartfailure.org/eng_site/preventinghf_lifestyle.htm
http://www.telomere.net/

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.